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Peter De Graef (°1958) is a contemporary preacher. With his thoroughly composed stories he first opens up our soul. Then, he smuggles into our receptive minds, insights into essential questions about happiness, humanity and the state of the world. Few authors dare to be so impudent today in their public service announcements. De Graef seemed destined to become an actor, with preliminary studies at the Municipal Music Academies in Borgerhout and Merksem, time at the conservatory of Dora van der Groen in Antwerp, and four years of employment at Theatergezelschap Ivonne Lex from 1979 onwards. But it is with the monologue Et voilà (1992), an adaptation of stories by Guy de Maupassant, that his true calling revealed itself. De Graef initially dreamt of becoming a novelist, but given his trajectory as an actor, his writing automatically turned to the theatre. He took with him his longing for a form of epic: in a few decades’ time, De Graef had developed a sizeable oeuvre of theatre texts that, in all their complex stratification, often resembled novels.
Reason versus emotion
For the development of this authorship, the years after Ivonne Lex are crucial. De Graef immersed himself in biology, physics, Buddhism and philosophy. This resulted in sometimes encyclopaedic writing around a central axis in his work: the conflict between science/reason and spirituality/emotion. In this struggle, De Graef chose the side of the latter, or as it is said in Et voilà: ‘Theories are for the faint hearted. They are fly swatters designed to keep questions at a distance.’ The contemporary person has more knowledge than ever, but still doesn’t know who he is, or what the meaning of life is, as the narrator finds in the opening sentence of Zoals de dingen gaan [As things go] (2008). Not that Peter De Graef does know, by the way. His texts, especially in the first years of his writing, offer no solutions. They are thought-experiments with which he tests the elasticity of his own mind and that of his readers.
What is the meaning of life?
What is the meaning of music?
Hm!? What does that mean?
What is the digestion of a chair?
A chair has no digestion.
Does that mean it’s a bad chair?
If a chair had digestion,
you probably couldn’t sit on it comfortably.
If music had meaning, it probably wouldn’t be beautiful any more.
If life had meaning, it probably couldn’t go on like it does at the moment.
(from: Zoals de dingen gaan)
De Graef realises that he is dealing with difficult, abstract issues. He therefore relies on the story to convey his insights. He manages to interweave the sometimes impressive barrage of scientific, political and social facts with the often hilarious as well as tragic fate of his characters. Their concrete, recognisable human side provides an entry point for De Graef’s deeper message. Take Stanley (2011): to the tragic family history of the ‘Vercautertjes’ and the sad love affairs of the adult I-figure, De Graef links reflections on advertising, politics and science, but also existential questions about the power of coincidence and the malleability of fate. But there’s more. The narrative is not only the cart in which De Graef transports his cargo, it is also part of the message itself. In almost every text, De Graef questions the status of language and story, as a way of constructing the world. Language and story are unreliable, they create only an illusion of order and control, and they are unsuitable in the eternal search for the truth, since “the concepts, which dwell like woodlice among the words, continually distract us.” Here it is the philosopher De Graef speaking, who has read Wittgenstein.
I’m just a character in a play.
And what I’m saying isn’t written in any book. I thought it up myself. At home. At the kitchen table.
It’s just a pair of glasses I put on you. If you look through them you’ll see what I’m saying.
And that’s true for all those people who try and tell you anything…
And there are just as many pairs of glasses as there are people. Six billion.
‘The truth’ is something like ‘the emperor’. Ungraspable.
The truth is like a hedgehog, extremely fragile.
The position of the outsider
Since 1994, De Graef has published texts, under the flag of the non-profit De Stichting, such as Ombat (1994), Hun! [Their!] (1995), Henry (1997) and Niks! [Nothing!] (2001): for the latter text he received the Flemish-Dutch Language Union playwright award in 2002. “Niks! (tells) in bits and pieces the sad life story of a man, who for all sorts of reasons, ultimately lost almost everything he ever owned, and found himself outside society. From this position he examines the world around him with wonder and bewilderment,” observed the jury. The position of outsider – which on an autobiographical level is always that of Peter De Graef himself – runs like a basso continuo through his work. De Graef’s heroes seem inadequate to the world in which they are thrown, with De Graef subcutaneously always asking whether that is the fault of the individual or of society. The suffering of his characters does not mean, however, that De Graef’s texts are awash in depression. De Graef usually surrounds their often absurd fate with quasi-airy self-mockery, and in terms of genre also opts for lighter forms such as the (tragic)comedy, the stand-up format or even – in his collaborations with composer Bo Spaenc – for the use of song lyrics. Only he often applies the classic trick of the spoonful of sugar, because the humour causes the tragedy to be all the harder. De Graef places you in hot/cold immersion therapy: it starts out warm and steaming, but often ends freezing cold.
Language as a whip
In recent years, De Graef’s writing seems to have evolved in different areas, in line with a changing time. Where his texts from the nineties were still pervaded by a sharp irony that immediately subverted each attempt at meaning, De Graef appears in more recent texts such as Rudy (2014) to increasingly want to be able to communicate more truthfully. The Message has been given a capital “M”. De Graef dares to ask the questions that matter, without immediately laughing them away. On a formal level, this means that the extremely splintered, fragmentary narrative forms of yesteryear have become more coherent, that his writing again exhibits a classical dramatic structure. This is also evident in the rigid three-part concept of Twee zielen, drie levens, zes mensen [Two souls, three lives, six people] (2017) or the tragic build-up-to-a-climax of Mevrouw Bob [Mrs. Bob] (2018). Is this concern for clarity due to the fact that De Graef is becoming increasingly angry at the world? That’s how it feels at least. Where in the older work the imperfections of life were situated mainly on the personal level, in recent years, fuelled by an outcry about the banking crisis and neo-liberal domination, an explicit position is taken on social and political topics. In addition, postmodern doubt, the eternal nuance of ‘on the one hand, on the other’, comes into play. De Graef’s tone has hardened. Rudy is foul-mouthed fury going up against misanthropy. While the text might cause the reader pain, the good thing about De Graef is that he always includes himself in the critique – his accusationalways targets himself. As a result, the reader is able to tolerate his sometimes undisguised moralism.
Democracy, it’s such a pathetic little system: you already know that what’s in opposition today will be in government tomorrow.
And the government of today, in opposition tomorrow.
And so democracy will teeter on a nincompoop for evermore.
And it costs money, and energy, and fuss, and it’s completely stuck in the mud.
And what baffles me in monumental ways is that crushing resignation with which we, the ordinary people, let it all happen.
All that fixing and organising and hoo-haa behind the scenes.
The falsehood that permeates our society. You can’t even go outside without sliding about on lies, you’ll break your neck on all that deceipt.
And we don’t make a squeak.
The evil in this world doesn’t come about because there are so many evil people doing evil things, but because there are so many nice friendly people who don’t say a thing about it.’
De Graef realises today that speaking (or writing) is a form of taking action, that language is a whip to wake up himself and the audience. The preacher has gained strength, but also hope. Because if a story constructs the world, what stops us from writing new stories, constructing better worlds? ‘Never give up what you do’, that’s how Rudy ends. Here Peter De Graef sounds more resilient than ever.
DOWNLOAD TEXT EXCERPT FROM ‘STANLEY’
Written by Evelyne Coussens
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Evelyne Coussens studied Classical Languages at Ghent University and Theatre Studies at Antwerp University. She works for publiq and writes as a freelance cultural journalist for the newspaper De Morgen as well as for various Flemish and Dutch cultural media (among others, rekto:verso, Etcetera, Ons Erfdeel, Theatermaker). She is an editor at-large for Etcetera and has sat on various juries. Coussens is also a guest lecturer on the theory and practice of art criticism at various colleges and universities.
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